Belle had finally gotten the picture. After moping around her apartments for countless days, she was finally ready to face the world again.
She'd read the letter over a million times. It had finally sunk in. She had always been loved, and she still loved. Even though she was loved by one of Satan's own groupies, it still made Belle happier than a few days before.
The last thing the princess had to do was to make things right with Daisy. She had been rude to her friend because even after six or seven months, it hadn't sunk in. Nothing had. Belle had worn a water-proof body suit; she'd just watched the rain and sort of seen it dripping down her skeleton.
But now, she'd stripped herself of the sheltering suit. Now Belle was out in the rain. Her skirt was soaking wet with guilt and regret and realization. As terribly cold as it was outside, dancing in the rain and just plain crying with it felt relieving.
Now that he'd told Belle so himself, the girl was sure that her beloved had killed her friend. She was angry, but thankful that her buddy had survived the afterlife.
She tiptoed over to her bed, squatted down next to it, and pulled her cell phone out from underneath. Sitting on her bed, Belle dialed the number. . . .
April fifth. April fifth. April fifth. It was April fifth.
Oliver was hitching a ride from his new mother, Hanna, to pick up his date.
Oliver would have to face the wrath of Tasha May Foster.
The car ride over was silent. It was humid but rainy. Hanna kept shooting nervous looks over to her son.
When they were a block away from the Levine home, Hanna spoke. "You have your umbrella ready for her?" she asked, a hint of nervousness in her voice.
"Yeah," Oliver said, dreading the butterflies in his stomach.
Hanna looked concerned. "You okay?" she asked lightly. "It's only a dance."
"Yeah," Oliver said again. "It's not that, it's that Mrs. Foster--Mrs. Levine. . . ."
His mother sighed. She had heard the whole story from Oliver. "Honey, she's an old woman. A lawyer," Hanna said reasonably. They'd arrived at their destination. "Go get 'em, tiger," she whispered as Oliver opened the car door.
By the time he reached the door, it was already open. Standing in the door was an elderly woman.
"You look just like Megan," she said.
Oliver's mouth gaped. "Tasha--Sorry, Mrs. Levine, I--"
"How's Megan?" asked Mrs. Levine, sweeping Oliver inside. "I hope she's alright," she said seriously.
"Actually," Oliver said coldly, "she's passed away. . . . A curse--"
Mrs. Levine's face paled. "Oh my God!" she said. "You--oh, poor boy, I--I had forgotten all about that. Well--ooh, I wish I could make it up to her--and you, too--oh." She looked upset. Tears formed in her eyes. "Call me May," she said softly.
Oliver nodded. This woman acted so much like his grandmother that he wanted to cry. But he couldn't, for Audrey had entered the room.
"Oh my God--you look--you look brilliant!" said Oliver in shock. "I mean beautiful!"
Audrey didn't look like her regular rough, tough self. She actually looked girly.
Her hot pink, strapless dress was flouncy--it went down to her knees, and light pink tulle peeked out of the bottom. The dress alone was a spectacle. However, Audrey looked like a living miracle.
Her cheeks were rosy and pink. Her fair skin glowed. She wore smoky gray eye shadow--it stood out against her dress. Audrey's lips were pink and shining.
The girl's white-blond hair was also entirely different. It was pulled up into a stylish side ponytail, held up with what seemed to be an invisible hair tie. Audrey literally glowed.
May smiled down at her granddaughter. "Aww, well, have fun!" she said comfortingly, leaving the two alone in the hallway.
"You look handsome yourself," said Audrey sweetly. She gave him a big smile and a kiss on the cheek. "Let's get going."
Oliver opened the umbrella and escorted her to the car. This night was turning out slightly better than he'd imagined it would be.
They arrived at the dance a short while later. Mrs. Pickering dropped them off with a giant wave and a warm smile. Over the last few moments with Audrey, the woman had been completely and totally won over by the charming girl.
Oliver took his girlfriend's arm in one arm and held the umbrella in the other. He looked sideways at his date. "You know you look beautiful," he said for the millionth time that night. He grinned awkwardly and looked down at his own feet.
Beaming, Audrey answered, "Thanks. You've told me that several times already tonight. But you know, I don't look all that great. You look as handsome as a lemon-meringue pie yourself!" This was true. Oliver was wearing a white suit with a pastel yellow collar and pockets. His shirt underneath was also pastel yellow. His shoes, however, were plain white. "It'd be a pity if you spilled punch on yourself."
At this, Oliver laughed. "You just jinxed it!" he exclaimed. Audrey joined in laughing with him. She looked gorgeous. "You look positively lovely," he commented.
"Oliver, you've said that a million and one times!" his date said. "What are you getting at?"
Ignoring this question, Oliver pulled Audrey over to check in. While waiting in line, a large group of people approached the couple. One girl squealed and ran over to embrace Oliver, nearly knocking the wind out of him. Audrey soon became defensive, as did the hugger's date. The girl pulled back to take in Oliver's outfit.
Naturally, it was Daisy who'd hugged him. "You look absolutely scrumptious!" she exclaimed loudly. Turning to Audrey, she took a deep breath, prepping to say, "I love your dress! Where did you get it? I'd never buy it, though; it looks gorgeous on you, Audrey!"
Flattered, Audrey thanked the girl and told her where she'd gotten the dress. "But you know," Audrey said, a little reluctantly, "I'm nothing compared to you."
True enough, though, it couldn't have been said better. Daisy looked like the million dollars that Audrey's boyfriend had never had. She wore a simple, laced white dress that had spaghetti straps and fell down to skim the tops of her feet. Her shoes were simple and white, with small heels. She wore pearl and diamond bracelets and a precious pearl necklace. Her earrings were chandeliers, with diamonds falling around her ears. Though it could've been cubic zirconium, the diamonds were most likely as sterling as their wearer. Her hair was down, falling in loose, fiery ringlets around her precious white face.
As Oliver observed her in a new light, Tyler approached from the back of the crowd and draped his arm around her waist. "Hey-hey! Hands off!" Tyler said pompously. "Mine!" Daisy laughed.
"What're you two doing at the dance?" Oliver asked, confused. "You guys don't go here!"
"But I do!" cried a girlish male voice. A familiar-looking upperclassman surfaced from the crowd. He had black hair, olive skin, and shining green eyes. In reality, he was quite handsome. He wore a classic black suit with a rose in his pocket. "I'm Pierre," the boy announced, offering Oliver a hand. They shook hands, and all of a sudden, Belle appeared.
"I'm here!" the princess cried. "Pierre's such a sweetie; he bought me and Daisy and Tyler all tickets." Soon she realized who she was talking to--Oliver--and stopped abruptly. They hadn't been on speaking terms since he'd slapped her in February. "Delia's dancing."
Oliver and Audrey had reached the check-in booth by now, and they handed their tickets over. They were immediately admitted to the dance.
The dance ended up being plenty of fun. Belle blatantly avoided Oliver, and Audrey was often seen throwing the princess sharp looks.
Overall, there was nothing extraordinarily special about it, except for Daisy and Audrey. He made sure he ordered a picture of him and Audrey, and one of Tyler and Daisy.
Daisy was the sweetest girl Oliver had ever met. The now-human girl had always been caring and cautious, but she also tended to make a joke out of life. The young Daisy was beautiful and virtually perfect, but she had only just turned fourteen. Plus, there was the fact that she already had a beau. A beau whom she loved with all of her precious heart.
Why couldn't Oliver end up with Daisy? Why? But then, he had Audrey. Audrey, the rough, tough cowgirl who was mostly talk. She was tough on the outside, and there was no way she would ever get used to the prospect of having a boyfriend. However wonderful she was, Audrey was so defensive, and yet, she continued to flirt with other guys. He'd witnessed it with his own eyes several times. Although he scolded himself for thinking so, Oliver thought, at the very back of his mind, that perhaps he deserved better than Audrey? Someone loyal and loving. Someone who was totally and completely committed to him. Someone who was more of a girl than Audrey.
Presently, Oliver was lying out in the middle of a random meadow behind the Jinx Library.
Beautiful as she was, Audrey sort of acted like a guy sometimes. On occasion, Oliver saw her as more of a sister than as a girlfriend. But maybe she'd grow out of that stage. Maybe she'd mature into the girlfriend she'd wanted to be so badly. She was probably just nervous at first. They would take everything day by day. That way, nothing would seem impossible.
There was no romance between them. Just the hugs and the occasional kiss on the cheek. Perhaps hand-holding. But Oliver was not that slow. He would have to wait up for his dear Audrey, until she caught up with him. Maybe then they'd be able to move on--together.
"Ooh," Belle said softly, trying to tiptoe away without being seen. She had gone to her special thinking place--in a meadow behind the library--and run into Oliver. She still held a grudge over him, even after Pierre had forced them to dance together at the dance.
"Oh, hey," said Oliver drearily. Belle winced. She'd been caught. "What's up?"
The princess sighed. Without turning around, she said, "Well ... you're wrong."
At this, Oliver sounded surprised. "Oh?" he asked calmly. "About what?"
"That Pancho never loved me."
Oliver sighed heavily. "Argh, Belle, get over it! He's so last year. I thought you were over him."
"I am," Belle answered, a little sadly. "But he did love me, and even though I'm not going to let that change anything--well, you were wrong."
"What'd I say?"
"That he never loved me."
The boy sighed again. "Well, maybe he did. I don't know. I just didn't think he did, what with all of the tabloids. And I suppose I was a tad jealous."
Belle turned on her heel to face Oliver. He was sitting on the grass, lazily propped up with his legs spread lazily in a V. "What do you mean? Jealous of me?"
He shrugged. "I guess a little. But mostly of him." He paused. "See, you were my idol. And when I saw him dead, well, I was shocked. And then I realized I wasn't too upset about the whole deal, because then you'd be single."
"You're ruthless!" Belle exclaimed, clearly disgusted.
"Yeah, I was," Oliver admitted, grinning sheepishly. "But after a while, my whole obsession with you wore off."
The princess nodded. "Er, why?"
"I guess because it was sort of like an infatuation with a celebrity--you know it'll never happen, but you still like them for whatever reason."
"Well, but then I liked Lilli," he continued. At this gossip, Belle's eyes widened. "But when I told her, she said she didn't like me. So I was all torn up, and ... that's all there is to tell." He scratched his head and cocked it awkwardly to the side, then added, "I'm sorry."
Frowning, Belle asked, "What for?"
"You know!" he said, pointing a finger at the princess. "Don't play dumb! I know that trick!" His tone suddenly softened. "Well, I'm sorry for slapping you and contradicting you and--well, and for everything."
"Even for our little relationship?" Belle asked, hungry for an answer.
Before he answered, Oliver hesitated. "Well--I was, at first. I didn't want to go out with you." Belle nodded in understanding. "Because I felt sorry for you, though, I did. You're awesome, but ... you're a princess. And not my type at all. But ... I like our friendship." He looked up at her, in dire need of reassurance. "That is, if we even have a friendship."
Belle considered and took his hand, pulling Oliver upright. "That we do have." She smiled brightly at him, and they walked together toward the park.
"You know," Oliver pondered, "it's funny that you're a princess, and you don't even seem to have a bodyguard."
The princess shrugged. "It's a do-what-I-want sort of policy," she explained rationally. "I mean, hey, it's a big city, and while it's easy to get lost, at least there's always someone wherever I go. Plus I have this cool watch." She rolled up the sleeve to her pink cashmere sweater, revealing a somewhat bulky, but still attractive, watch. She carefully aimed it away from the both of them and pressed a small button on the side. Some sort of mist came out from the head of the watch. "Pepper spray," Belle said happily.
They entered the park and Belle explained how the pepper spray worked. "See, it gets into the kidnapper's eyes, and then it stings real bad, and then they can't see for a while, 'cause it hurts so bad!"
"Please keep that away from me," said Oliver warily. He gave her a microscopic grin.
"Heh heh," laughed Belle. "I will. Unless, of course, you try to kidnap me. ... What?" She looked over at Oliver's face, which had gone white. Then Belle looked forward, up the park's path, where there were many news teams gathered around a giant oak tree.
The couple ran rapidly up the path to see what was going on. Once they reached the tree, Oliver and Belle realized that the newspeople weren't gathering around the tree, but around a windy path next to the tree, which led down to the stream.
"What's going on?" Oliver asked a blond reporter hurriedly. "What happened?"
The woman shrugged. "Some kid drowned in the river," she answered. "Sad thing, sad thing when a young boy dies."
Belle looked to Oliver. "Should we see who it was?" she asked him seriously. "I mean, we sort of have priority over these reporters; I'm the princess of this here country."
Oliver nodded rapidly in response and whisked his friend down the path to the stream, which, in turn, led to the Klyan River. Their hearts both pounded with excitement, seeking out what they wanted to know. As they grew nearer to the river, the line of reporters grew thicker. Why were there so many here? What was so important about a boy dying? It was just a boy, after all; it wasn't anyone who Oliver or Belle even knew.
Pauline Karles had been in the television business forever. As a youngster in school, she'd always been exceptionally bright, getting high marks. She had always been a thinker. She liked thinking things through, and having intellectual, meaningful discussions on psychology and theories.
Even though she'd done many a report on a death or tragedy, Pauline had never, ever seen one like this. She'd seen suicides and murders of numerous types. But never one like this.
She looked over at the raging river and sighed, pushing her long, dark hair out of her face. Glancing over at the cameraman, she listened to her earphone, smiling grimly.
"And here's Pauline, live, on the banks of the very Klyan River where he died," a voice said, muffled, in her earpiece. "Pauline?"
"Thank you, Chris," Pauline said brightly. "Yes, I'm here on the banks of the Klyan River, reporting live. If you'll look out at the river, the rapids are raging today. It seemed like such a nice day, too." She turned around shortly as Chris gave a report on the death.
So many youths died these days, it almost didn't matter anymore. So another was gone? So what? He was only twenty or twenty-one years old; they hadn't yet gotten a report on his family. Had they survived the accident? Pauline wondered. But it didn't matter; it was another report, another day.
"Pauline?" asked Chris. "Any new news?" He laughed at his corny joke.
Looking back into the camera, Pauline gave a brief smile, paused for one-one thousand. . . . "No, Chris," Pauline responded persuasively, "no new news on the tragedy of Paul Bunting. The only news we've heard is that the car swerved off of the bridge. There were only five in the car; Paul, 21, his wife, Annie, 19, and their three young children, Meredith, Nikole, and James. As you can see behind me--" she gestured behind her at the river, "--the emergency team has, ah, already taken the family out of the river. It's a tragedy. We know that the man, Paul, drowned; though we've still got no report on the rest of the family. Let him rest in peace. And now for our commercial break, but we'll be right back with more live reports. Ah, this segment was brought to you by Corny Flakes. . . ."
Who? What? Where? When? How?
Why had another young guy died? It was like déjá vú. Oliver tumbled down onto the riverbank and approached a Greek-looking reporter with long, dark hair, who was on her break. He tapped her on the shoulder suddenly. She spun around quickly, alarmed, and then offered him an amused smile.
"Can I help you, sir?" she asked politely, still smiling.
"P-Pauline?" Oliver asked, shocked. "Pauline Karles?"
The lady nodded. "Can I help you, sir?" she asked again. Oliver gasped. This woman was practically his idol. The way she told the news--she really had a knack for it. She was funny, too. Unlike most newscasters, Pauline actually told pretty good jokes that were actually relevant to her reports.
Snapping out of his trance, Oliver nodded. "Oh, yeah. . . . Sorry 'bout that. It's just, you're on television. . . ."
"Yeah, I'm a newscaster, sir," she said, laughing.
"Okay," said Oliver, temporarily distracted. "Oh--but could you tell me what the big deal about this death is?" he asked. "I mean, there's so many reporters here. Did someone get murdered? Did they find Benjamin Wellington's body?" he continued, referring to a boy who'd turned up missing a year ago.
Shaking her head, Pauline responded, "Oh, no, I wish they had. My paycheck would've skyrocketed. . . . But no. A boy, his wife, and their kids were driving down the road to God Knows Where, and somehow, the man lost control of the car or something. It plummeted into the guardrail and into the river. The man drowned. We're waiting for reports on the other two."
"Who were they?" Belle chimed in.
"Ah, you wouldn't know them," said Pauline, waving a hand at the princess. "They're from out of town. They were apparently visiting or coming to visit. Well, the only way we knew it was them was because the man wore an I.D. tag. Eh, Paul Bunting."
Oliver nodded for a second and turned to walk away, and then it sank in. Paul Bunting was his brother. "Did--" he looked at Pauline and shook his head. "I'm Oliver Bunting. I'm his brother."
Pauline looked shocked. "I'm sorry, dear."
"What?" Oliver said softly. "What? Paul--Paul, my brother. He was lost to me for so--no! No, he's not dead!" He turned to the cameraman, who was eating a tuna sandwich. "He's not--" The man nodded in reply. Oliver waved him away and turned to the man holding the boomer. "No--" But this man nodded along with the other one, like a sick bobble-head doll. "I've got to see--" Tears welled up in his eyes, and his throat choked up, making it impossible to finish his impossible sentence.
"Over on the other side of the river, son," said Pauline sympathetically. "I'm sorry."
He sat near the ambulance with his fingers threaded through each other. It had all happened too fast. He'd just met his brother, and now he'd died. And his brother's family, too. But they weren't necessarily dead.
"Son, we've got word on the mother," a paramedic said, emerging from the ambulance.
Oliver looked up at the man. Maybe Annie was still alive?
"I'm sorry, son." Scratch that. She was gone, too.
The boy looked away. Why was it that life had to be so bittersweet? If his life was just normal, everything would be perfect. If Oliver had his mother and father back, and Megan, and now his brother. If Oliver was still two years old, everything would be just fine.
Nothing had been just fine for twelve whole years. If only his parents hadn't died.
The paramedic had reentered the ambulance. Oliver heard him swear loudly, and talk in a low voice with the other doctors. Maybe James, Meredith, and Nikole had all survived.
After five minutes of Oliver's worries floating around, contaminating the fresh air, the paramedic emerged again, with tears in his eyes. "We just lost another one. We lost the big girl, Nikole." He wiped his eyes. "Young 'uns. So sad to see them go. That's the hardest part of my job."
Belle touched Oliver's arm. He looked glumly over at her, and when he wiped his eyes, he realized that she was crying, too. He had forgotten that the princess was even there.
"Why--?" Belle asked, but her throat choked up just like Oliver's had earlier.
"I don't know," he answered through tears. "I just don't feel like talking now. I don't want to do anything. I barely knew them, but I miss them so bad. I mean, I've known Paul since I was born. He's been there since I was born. He left, but he was still alive. And it was the greatest surprise to see him again. But now, I just feel like laying in bed in fetal position and sleeping all day."
The paramedic had only placed one foot inside the ambulance to boost himself up when he turned around again. "The boy's gone. James Bunting."
Oliver moaned in agony. That only left Meredith. The middle one, Meredith. Meredith, with the grand blue eyes and the strawberry blond hair and the fair skin. The little girl had a round, angelic face that made her look like a doll. She was only three. But Oliver held onto the hope that she'd survive. He stood up all of a sudden and strolled over to the ambulance, hoisting himself up inside. Then he took a look all around him. There were the four dead bodies, symbols of the past, limp and lifeless. The boy took a step toward his own brother, the first one to leave. Paul
"Paul," said Oliver softly. He held his brother's hand and looked into his wet, lifeless face. He let a tear drop down onto the body, and then turned away, weeping loudly, overcome with emotion.
He approached Annie's body next; the fighter. She tried to hold on for her kids. It was a lost struggle, though. She was a beauty; her brown, wavy hair was still wet, circled in a dark halo around her head. Her eyes were closed. But what color had they been when she was alive?
Nikole came next. It was funny that this family had died in age order up until James. Black humor. Nikole's dark hair waved around her lifeless head. Her brown eyes were still open; she'd apparently died taking her last bitter taste of the world. Oliver took one of her small, cold hands in his own and kissed it softly. Poor girl.
And then there was James, lying on the same cot as his big sister. He had a curly patch of dirty blond hair, serving as a cushion as his head. Unlike the rest of his family, who were shocked, James looked at peace with the world. Oliver kissed his nephew's cheek gently and stroked his wet, whitie-afro hair.
He couldn't bring himself to look at his niece who was still alive. Meredith would probably die within the minute. . . .
A paramedic touched his shoulder sympathetically. "I think it's best you talk to the girl," she told him. "She might just wake up, and then we could at least take her to the hospital."
Oliver shook his head slowly, but the woman shoved him gently to his niece. He approached her cot and looked at her closed eyelids, begging God to help her regain life. He looked over at the paramedic, but she nodded at him and left the ambulance, leaving him alone with Meredith.
At first, he didn't know what to say or do. He took her hand like he had with the rest of the family and kissed it. For one reason or another, Meredith's hand wasn't quite as cold as anyone else's. He saw her chest heaving up and down gently, and her delicate nostrils flaring every once in a while. Apparently, she didn't have any trouble breathing.
All of a sudden, Oliver began to rush to say anything he could to wake his niece up. Anything to keep her alive. "Mer-Mer, please, come back. I love you; Belle loves you; even the paramedics care, Mer. Meredith, please. Life won't be the same without your mommy and daddy, I know. But honey, it'll all be okay. You'll hurt sometimes, and you'll be angry, Meredith. But . . . but I'll always be there for you. I promise I'll never leave you, and I won't ever let you away from me. I'll be like your daddy for now. Your real daddy won't be back. But I'll take care of you. I promise. I won't let anything happen. Meredith, I love you. Please come back." The tears had started up in his eyes again, and he let them stream out.
He thought he felt Meredith's hand twitch, but when he looked up at her, she was just the same as ever, still breathing softly, still dead to the world. This made him even more depressed and anxious. He was imagining it all.
But then her hand twitched again; Oliver was sure of it this time. Her leg twitched suddenly, and her sky-blue eyes flickered open suddenly.
"Meredith?" he called, bringing her back.
The girl's eyes rolled around, examining this new place, and she opened her mouth and coughed. It was a throat-rattling cough that sent her little pink tongue flying out of her mouth. She coughed and looked around, and then caught sight of Oliver. She waved at him and coughed some more, attempting a smile.
"Meredith!" Oliver cried, engulfing the girl in a hug. "She's back!" Oliver cried to the paramedics outside. Two of them rushed into the back of the truck, accompanied by Belle, while the other two rushed to the front of the truck and began to drive off at top speed to the hospital.
Oliver and Belle stayed at the hospital--day and night--for two days after the tragic accident. Daisy and Lilli came and visited when they had time. Meredith was getting better by the hour. Within a day, she was breathing on her own. Luckily, she had been whisked from the water just in time, so she hadn't caught hypothermia.
Paul's funeral took place a week after his death. Oliver was pained, but he still went in honor of his brother. Fiona couldn't believe he'd died. When she saw the body, though, she broke down in tears. She finally believed the horrendous accident.
It was hard for the siblings to cope. It had felt like their lives were suddenly complete, but they weren't at all. Their life together had just begun, with Paul included. Then, one beautiful day, when Oliver had finally made up with Belle, their big brother was killed in several seconds. Life sucked like vacuum cleaners. It was oh-so bittersweet.
For his big brother and only for his big brother, Oliver said some words at the funeral. Tears hadn't escaped from his eyes for a day or so, but finally, all of his emotions slowly leaked out.
"My big brother. You were there from the day I was
born. And ever since I was ten, you've been this myth to me, but I knew you were somewhere. You were something for me to hold onto. I don't know how I'm gonna make do without something I'm so used to knowing is there somewhere. I don't know, but I look forward to the day when I can see you again. . . And I'm glad I could meet you one last time." The guests of the death party were overwhelmed with tears by the time he'd finished declaring his small, meaningful speech.
Fiona had also written a speech, but she was so upset, she choked up and was unable to recite her monologue.
She and Oliver both broke down for Paul's last moments above ground. Then, all of a sudden, all that were left were his spirit and his daughter.
Oliver gave his little sister a gentle, comforting hug as she bawled. The rest of the day was a blur of tears and emotions.
"Eh, you ready to go home?" Oliver asked Meredith as he kneeled beside her hospital bed. She only had a day left in the hospital; they were going to keep her for one more night, and then she could go home.
"Mommy and Daddy? With them?" Meredith asked eagerly.
Oliver shook his head. He hated to wipe that adorable smile off her face. "Nah, they won't be home for a while--er, you'll be staying with me."
A nurse was hovering over the bed beside him, and he looked up at the man. What should he tell his own niece? The nurse gave him a sympathetic look. "Just tell her," he said quietly. "It's better she knows sooner."
"Where's Mommy?" asked Meredith again, perplexed.
Tears crept into his eyes as Oliver responded, "She's in Heaven."
"Huh?" said Meredith, still confused. "Where's Mommy?" Her voice was silly as she talked, as though the proposition of her mother being in Heaven was part of a game.
Looking back up the nurse, Oliver responded, "She's dead." The nurse nodded at Meredith sympathetically.
"But--where's Daddy?" The little girl was beginning to grow concerned.
"He's in Heaven, too."
Meredith's face fell. "Nikole?"
"She died, too," said Meredith's uncle.
"But--but what about my brother?"
Taking a deep breath to calm his tears, Oliver responded gently, "All of them are dead."
Meredith's big, sky-blue eyes overflowed with tears. "I want my mommy," she cried mournfully. Oliver hugged her and they cried together for some time.
After Mer had calmed down considerably, Oliver said, "They're in Heaven, though. That's a good place. And they're watching you now--all four of them. They'll watch you forever, and someday you'll see them again. Just ... just not now."
"How is she?" Oliver asked a nurse the next morning when he came to collect Meredith and bring her home.
The nurse gave him a gentle look. "She cried a whole lot. But no, she wasn't begging for her mother all night like most of 'em do. She just cried. And prayed, too."
"Prayed, ma'am?" asked Oliver. As far as he knew, Paul had been an atheist, and stayed away from church.
The woman nodded. "Yes," she answered, "the little girl prayed. It's amazing--the morale of some of these kids. I know she's upset. But most kids at her age would just beg me for their mothers."
"Well, do you think she's ready to go home, then?" Oliver asked, doubtingly.
"Oh, yeah," the nurse said. "It would be best for her. See, when she's isolated from people--like she is here--she can't adapt to any sort of lifestyle. It's better for her to go home and be around the people who care."
Oliver nodded and walked into his niece's room. She was dressed in fresh clothes that Mrs. Pickering had sent, and she looked peachy. Her face was still sad, though.
Meredith rushed over to engulf Oliver in a hug. "Oliver!" she said, though her voice was muffled by Oliver's shirt.
"C'mon," Oliver said to Meredith. "We're going home."
"Where is home?" asked Meredith, looking up at her uncle.
"Eh, I'll show you," he said. "My mom's checked you out, and she's driving home now. But we'll take my bike," he told her, grinning. Meredith jumped up and took Oliver's hand.
The two walked out of the hospital like that--hand-in-hand. Each one was what the other needed. Meredith was a miracle to remind Oliver of his brother and sister-in-law. And Oliver was the big brother, the mentor who's lost his parents at an early age as well. It would be a long journey--their life together--but it would most definitely be worth it.
As Oliver strapped Meredith into the back seat--the toddler seat of the bike--he looked at her and gave her a big hug.
"It'll all be okay," he assured her.
"I know," said the girl sadly. "But right now, I wanna see home."
Oliver laughed and strapped on her helmet, then his. He skipped to the front of his bike, threw his leg over the seat, and pedaled away from the hospital, toward their new home. Fiona would be waiting in the front yard with Mr. and Mrs. Pickering, and their dog. But to his own surprise, Daisy and Lilli and Belle and Adam would all be sitting in the front yard, along with Audrey and Tyler and a brand new kitten named Mackerel.
And although nobody would be able to see them or sense them, except perhaps Daisy, if she chose to, Paul, Annie, Nikole, and James were sitting among all of the people in the Pickering yard. But most importantly--to Oliver, at least--would be his parents, intangible, but still there. Invisible, but still there, spreading the love.